CAP Publicly Distanced Itself From the UAE. 8 Months Later, It Was Still Meeting with UAE Lobbyists.

A foreign policy expert at the influential think tank remained close to UAE lobbyists.

Sarah Lazare December 17, 2019

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This Jan­u­ary, the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress (CAP) declared it would no longer accept fund­ing from the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE). With a ris­ing unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic tide around the world, and seri­ous ques­tions about which side of that strug­gle our own pres­i­dent stands on, it seemed clear that all Amer­i­cans should take extra steps and leave no doubt where they stand,” a spokesper­son for CAP told the Guardian.

In March 2019, Katulis and CAP chief operating officer Gordon Gray co-authored an article that played down the importance of ending U.S. support for the UAE-Saudi war on Yemen.

The pledge came amid pub­lic out­cry over Sau­di Arabia’s mur­der and dis­mem­ber­ment of Jamal Khashog­gi, a colum­nist for the Wash­ing­ton Post, in the Sau­di con­sulate in Istan­bul on Octo­ber 2, 2018. Since 2014, CAP had received between $1.5 mil­lion and $3 mil­lion from the UAE, a close ally of Sau­di Ara­bia. CAP, found­ed by Clin­ton staffer John Podes­ta, is wide­ly seen as the think tank that wields the most influ­ence on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Dur­ing this time, the group had been con­spic­u­ous­ly silent on the U.S.-UAE-Saudi war on Yemen, which was con­demned by human rights groups.

But CAP appears not to have tak­en all steps to rid itself of UAE influ­ence. Accord­ing to For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act (FARA) records, which dis­close lob­by­ists’ finan­cial rela­tion­ships with for­eign gov­ern­ments, a high-lev­el CAP staffer con­tin­ued meet­ing with a UAE lob­by­ist for at least eight months after CAP pledged to stop tak­ing UAE donations.

FARA fil­ings show that Har­bour Group, a lob­by­ing firm, received $2,863,574.34 from the UAE and $160,008.09 from Sau­di Ara­bia dur­ing the six-month peri­od end­ing on March 312019.

That same fil­ing shows that, dur­ing this time peri­od, Richard Mintz, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Har­bour Group, had mul­ti­ple con­tacts” with Bri­an Kat­ulis, a senior fel­low at CAP known for his close rela­tion­ship with the UAE. These meet­ings extend­ed from Octo­ber 1 to March 30, indi­cat­ing they con­tin­ued for two months after CAP pledged it would stop tak­ing UAE mon­ey. While the record does not dis­close details of these meet­ings, it says the top­ic of their dis­cus­sions were UAE for­eign policy.”

It didn’t stop there. A new­ly released FARA fil­ing shows that, from April 1 to Sep­tem­ber 30, Har­bour lob­by­ists repeat­ed­ly met and com­mu­ni­cat­ed with Kat­ulis. Dur­ing that time peri­od, the lob­by­ing firm received $3,558,776.35 from the UAE (no U.S. lob­by­ing pay­ments from Sau­di Ara­bia were listed).

While FARA doc­u­ments are scant on details, frus­trat­ing trans­paren­cy advo­cates, the fil­ing notes that Richard Mintz, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Har­bour Group, met with Kat­ulis from April 1 to Sep­tem­ber 30. Under sub­ject mat­ter,” the fil­ing mere­ly states Iran/​Yemen/​Red Sea” — three top geopo­lit­i­cal con­cerns of the UAE.

The same fil­ing notes that two oth­er Har­bour Group lob­by­ists had con­tact with Kat­ulis: Adam Sharon who had a lunch, catch-up meet­ing” with him on August 22, and Matthew Tri­a­ca, who sent Kat­ulis an email on August 29.

The two FARA doc­u­ments only list meet­ings up to the end of Sep­tem­ber, so the meet­ings may be ongoing.

While these meet­ings do not con­tra­dict CAP’s state­ment that it is no longer receiv­ing UAE mon­ey, it does raise ques­tions about ongo­ing UAE influence.

Asked for com­ment, CAP spokesper­son Sam Hananel told In These Times via email, The Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress no longer accepts fund­ing from the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates. Fol­low­ing the con­clu­sion of the grant peri­od, CAP staff final­ized and sub­mit­ted reports asso­ci­at­ed with past work.”

CAP declined repeat­ed requests to com­ment on the con­tent of the meet­ings between Mintz and Kat­ulis. The refusal is notable, giv­en that CAP has called for increased trans­paren­cy on lob­by­ing dis­clo­sures, cit­ing the threat of Russ­ian interference.

Har­bour Group and Mintz did not respond to requests for an inter­view. CAP declined on Kat­ulis’ behalf.

Think tanks meet with all sorts of peo­ple, and a meet­ing alone does not prove undue polit­i­cal influ­ence. How­ev­er, a large num­ber of meet­ings over a sig­nif­i­cant time span sug­gests a clos­er rela­tion­ship, and one more like­ly to be mutu­al­ly beneficial.

CAP and Kat­ulis’ rela­tion­ship with UAE lob­by­ists goes back fur­ther. A recent report by Ben Free­man of the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy found that UAE for­eign agents,” most com­mon­ly Harbour’s Richard Mintz, con­tact­ed Kat­ulis at least 11 times accord­ing to their 2018 FARA fil­ings, pri­mar­i­ly regard­ing a CAP group trip to UAE/KSA’ in late April and ear­ly May 2018,” writes Free­man (who also pro­vid­ed In These Times the FARA doc­u­ments for this arti­cle.). The records show that then, as now, Mintz was the main con­tact for Katulis.

The report, fur­ther, notes that CAP was among the top five think tanks most con­tact­ed by the UAE in 2018.

CAP has long exert­ed sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence over the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and played a tremen­dous role in shap­ing Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion pol­i­cy, with Time report­ing in 2008 that not since the Her­itage Foun­da­tion helped guide Ronald Rea­gan’s tran­si­tion in 1981 has a sin­gle out­side group held so much sway.” Kat­ulis’ bio boasts his polit­i­cal influ­ence, not­ing that, for more than a decade, he has advised senior U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers on for­eign pol­i­cy and has pro­vid­ed expert tes­ti­mo­ny sev­er­al times to key con­gres­sion­al committees.”

Kat­ulis, mean­while, wears anoth­er hat: He is a senior advi­sor to Albright Stone­bridge Group, a glob­al busi­ness strat­e­gy firm” with offices in the UAE and Sau­di Ara­bia. The UAE office is led by Jad Mneym­neh, who pre­vi­ous­ly served in the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi’s Office of Strate­gic Affairs.

While a spokesper­son for the firm said its does not lob­by the U.S. gov­ern­ment or take on client work that involves activ­i­ties cov­ered by FARA,” jour­nal­ist Lee Fang not­ed on Twit­ter that the group is an influ­ence peddler.

While the firm may not par­take in activ­i­ties that war­rent FARA report­ing, its staffer — Kat­ulis — does per­form such activ­i­ties at CAP, like tes­ti­fy­ing before Congress.

There is rea­son to think that Kat­ulis’ rela­tion­ships have had an impact. A Jan­u­ary 16 Inter­cept report by Ryan Grim and Clio Chang found that, in the after­math of the Khashog­gi killing, Kat­ulis object­ed to an ini­tial state­ment from CAP con­demn­ing Sau­di Ara­bia for the mur­der and call­ing for con­crete con­se­quences. Thanks to Kat­ulis’ input, the state­ment was watered down and instead called for addi­tion­al steps to reassess” the U.S. rela­tion­ship with Sau­di Arabia.

CAP’s state­ment that it would no longer take UAE fund­ing came amid pub­lic scruti­ny fueled, in part, by these revelations.

The impli­ca­tions of these ties are not the­o­ret­i­cal. The Yemen war has killed at least 100,000 peo­ple, and the U.S.-Saudi-UAE coali­tion is respon­si­ble for more than 8,000 of 12,000 known civil­ian deaths, accord­ing to the Armed Con­flict Loca­tion and Event Data project. For more than four and a half years, the pow­er­ful think tank has tac­it­ly sup­port­ed the Yemen War through its silence. Even as the main­stream of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty turned against the war under Pres­i­dent Trump, the think tank stayed mum, despite weigh­ing in on a num­ber of oth­er for­eign pol­i­cy issues, from Russ­ian inter­fer­ence in the elec­tion to Trump’s deci­sion to exit the Iran nuclear deal. Dur­ing a heat­ed ‑con­gres­sion­al effort to end U.S. sup­port for the Yemen War by invok­ing the War Pow­ers res­o­lu­tion, CAP was silent, com­ing out in sup­port only after the res­o­lu­tion passed with broad Demo­c­ra­t­ic back­ing. (It was ulti­mate­ly vetoed by Trump in April.)

Some of Kat­ulis’ own writ­ing appears to con­tra­dict even CAP’s belat­ed state­ment of full sup­port” for U.S. with­draw­al from the Yemen War. In March 2019, Kat­ulis and CAP chief oper­at­ing offi­cer Gor­don Gray co-authored an arti­cle that played down the impor­tance of end­ing U.S. sup­port for the war.

End­ing U.S. mil­i­tary sup­port for the Sau­di-led coali­tion will not stop the war or address the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis,” they wrote. Suc­cess­ful­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly address­ing the grave sit­u­a­tion in Yemen will require patient diplo­ma­cy, which inevitably will see ups and downs giv­en the nature of the con­flict and the com­bat­ants inside and out­side Yemen.”

Though alleged­ly no longer fund­ing CAP direct­ly, the UAE gov­ern­ment was like­ly delight­ed to see such a state­ment come from a lead­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty-aligned think tank.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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